Chris Hillman: The Light We Need

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Photo by Lori Stoll

The Byrds were experimenting with country-rock long before Gram Parsons ever joined the band for the 1968 album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. A year and a half and two albums earlier, Chris Hillman had written the band’s first two country-rock songs for the Younger Than Yesterday record, and he’d recruited bluegrass/honky-tonk virtuoso Clarence White to play the lead guitar.

“Even back then,” Hillman says, “I was the one who was always bringing country music into the Byrds’ sound. On the second album, I got them to cut ‘Satisfied Mind,’ which had been a big Porter Wagoner hit. On the fourth album, I convinced them to record my first song with lyrics, ‘Time Between.’ It was a country song, and I brought in Clarence White to play the Telecaster solo. To me, that’s the beginning of country-rock right there. So when we did Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, it wasn’t the big turnaround everyone thought it was; it was an extension of something that had been there all along.”

Hillman is often the overlooked figure in the history of country-rock. A self-effacing bassist, he never had the larger-than-life personality of his fellow Byrds Parsons, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby nor of Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles, who each played a role.

But Hillman’s claim of kickstarting the whole chain reaction with “Time Between” is hard to refute, and he was the only person to co-found both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, the two crucial bands in birthing the movement. Hillman went on to also co-found the Stephen Stills-led Manassas, the all-star trio Souther-Hillman-Furay Band and the mainstream-country hitmakers, the Desert Rose Band. In any book about country-rock, it seems, you’ll find Hillman’s mop of curly brown hair (now a flattened white with a mustache to match) in half the photos.

For all his low profile among the general public, Hillman has ardent admirers among musicians, and one of those fans, Tom Petty, produced Hillman’s first solo album in a dozen years and his first new studio album of any kind in seven. Released last fall, Bidin’ My Time remakes four classic Byrds songs with the string-band feel of Hillman’s post-Desert Rose work, introduces five new Hillman compositions (with lyricist Steve Hill), remakes an Everly Brothers song and puts a bluegrass twist on Petty’s own “Wildflowers.”

“The record industry’s pretty much dead right now,” Hillman points out. “I had had a great time, but I didn’t think I’d make any more records. I was 71 and I thought I was done. I still went out and played with Herb Pedersen; we’re a good act and we get good offers all the time.

Pedersen, though, also sang harmony for Petty’s side project Mudcrutch. Petty, who owes more than a little of his sound to the Byrds, would pump Hillman’s longtime musical partner for information, and the more information Petty received, the more he became convinced that the world needed a new, well produced Chris Hillman album. So he called Hillman and offered to produce it himself.

“I asked Tom, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” Hillman recalls. “He said, “Are you sure you want to do it?’ We went back and forth, and finally I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He said, ‘We have to do it at my studio in January before I go out on tour.’ Tom was fantastic; it was probably the most pleasurable recording experience I’ve ever had. Tom could have bowed out at any time, but he was there for every single session.

“I didn’t know him as well I got to know him. In 1978, when I was working in McGuinn-Hillman-Clark, the Heartbreakers were just getting started. He’s always acknowledged his debt to the Byrds, but he took it 10 steps up the ladder. He started out imitating us, then innovated. That’s how I did it when I got started: imitate and innovate. I’d listen to a Lefty Frizzell song till I got 80 percent of it and then I’d add my own stuff.”

Crosby sings harmony on “Bells Of Rhymney”; McGuinn plays electric 12-string guitar (alongside Petty’s electric six-string) on “Here She Comes Again.” On 11 of the 12 songs, however, the core band is Ricky Skaggs’ ex-bassist Mark Fain and Hillman’s Desert Rose Band partners Pedersen and John Jorgenson on a variety of acoustic instruments. Here’s what the Byrds might have sounded like if they’d been an acoustic string band rather than an electric rock band.

This is most obvious on “Old John Robertson,” co-written by Hillman and McGuinn for the Notorious Byrd Brothers album and now rewritten as “New Old John Robertson.” Instead of being powered by electric guitars and drums, it’s now framed by mandolin, banjo and fiddle, which better fit the lyrics about an old man in a cowboy hat living out his widowed years in a small California town.

“There’s not a songwriter around who doesn’t go, ‘I really should have changed that’ or ‘I could have had a better line there.’” Hillman explains. “Sometimes an opportunity comes along to get a second chance if enough time has gone by and the song wasn’t a hit. If it improves the song, why not? I wrote a new bridge, which makes clear that this man was a big-deal movie director. He lived in my town, so I added that bridge about seeing him in his Stetson and jodhpurs around town.”

John Robertson was a real person, a Canadian who directed dozens of films, including the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. The poignancy of this once-famous man spending his final years in anonymity works better as a string-band number than as a rocker. This is most likely how Hillman originally heard the song; after all, he started out as a bluegrass mandolinist.

“When I was in high school,” he remembers, “my older sister Susan came home from the University of Colorado with a stack of records — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger — and I loved it,” he remembers. “Then I heard the New Lost City Ramblers, which I loved, and then I heard Flatt & Scruggs and I just went, ‘Wow.’ As the English rock bands learned from the masters, I did the same, but I took another path.”

He formed his own bluegrass band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers with some high school pals, including future Burrito Brother Kenny Wertz. “That was one of the better bands I was ever in,” Hillman says, “because we played without fear.” They auditioned for a producer named Jim Dickson, who sent them down the street to Crown Records, where they made a quickie album, 1963’s Blue Grass Favorites. That got them some local notoriety, and soon they were hanging out with such fellow Southern California teenage bluegrassers as Tony and Larry Rice and Clarence and Roland White.

Roland helped Hillman on the mandolin, and the latter was soon offered a job with arguably the best bluegrass band in California: the Golden State Boys featuring Vern and Rex Gosdin and Don Parmley. Dickson started managing the band and renamed them The Hillmen for their 1964 album of the same name. Vern Gosdin would become a legendary country singer, and Parmley would found the brilliant band, the Bluegrass Cardinals. But The Hillmen never made much money and soon disbanded.

The band’s namesake was scuffling, playing in the Green Grass Group, a mediocre offshoot of the New Christy Minstrels, a mediocre pop-folk band that had employed McGuinn and Crosby at different times. Dickson got in touch and asked Hillman if he’d be willing to learn enough bass to join a Beatlesque group featuring McGuinn, Crosby and Gene Clark. Hillman was dubious; he’d never played bass in his life. But as soon as he heard the other three sing, he knew they were going to be stars.

“What separated the Byrds from the folk and bluegrass bands was David Crosby,” Hillman argues. “He’d grown up in glee club, and he listened to the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los, just like Brian Wilson did, so he approached harmonies in a different way. So we were combining the Stanley Brothers and the Beach Boys.

“Gene was from Bonner Springs, Kansas, so he’d grown up on country music, but I had to educate the other guys on the Stanley Brothers. Crosby thought it was stupid. In 1965, we’re in the car; there’s a country radio station playing steel, and David said, ‘I hate it.’ Three years later, Jerry Garcia is playing steel on his records.”

The Byrds are famous for pioneering folk-rock, but the folk music they were fusing to rock and roll was mostly the Anglo-Celtic music of Southern Appalachia. Each of the Byrds’ first two albums included a song by the five-string banjo player Pete Seeger, who loved the pre-World War II songs from the mountains, a sound often called “old-time country music.” It’s a short hop from old-time to bluegrass and then to honky tonk. It was almost as if folk-rock had to lead to country-rock eventually.

As almost always happens in artistic breakthroughs, several people were working on the same idea at the same time, unaware of the others. After all, when a culture evolves in a certain direction and an audience emerges for a new art form, more than one person is likely to respond. So it was in the mid-‘60s as the Dillards, Rick Nelson, Michael Nesmith, Buffalo Springfield, Ian & Sylvia, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the International Submarine Band all experimented with a country-rock fusion in different proportions.

But it was the Byrds who had the clout and vision to get the hybrid sound heard and respected. In doing so, it became the only act in rock and roll history to launch three important sub-genres — folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, and country-rock — all in four years. This accelerated evolution from “Turn, Turn, Turn” through “Eight Miles High” to “Hickory Wind” went by so fast that the band never quite realized what they’d accomplished until it was too late.

“We started out covering Dylan and Seeger songs,” recalls Hillman, “but in six months we’re writing ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘Rock And Roll Star.’ Where would we have gone after ‘Eight Miles High’ if we had stayed together? I wish we had found out. Why did we break up? It was everything that breaks bands apart: outside voices from friends and wives. It was being young.

“What the Byrds sorely lacked was real camaraderie. Look at the Heartbreakers; they’ve stayed together for 40 years, because they have an obvious camaraderie. When we fired Jim Dickson, it was like Brian Epstein dying. Suddenly we were rudderless.”

Aboard a boat adrift at sea, band members began to abandon ship. Clark left in May 1966 because he hated air travel. Crosby left in October 1967 over leadership conflicts with McGuinn. Drummer Mike Clarke quit in November 1967. By the end of that year, only McGuinn and Hillman were left in the band. They hired Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelley as a drummer, but they still needed another voice and another chording instrument.

“We were making our first jabs at country-rock before we ever met Gram,” Hillman says. “But when Gram came into the group, I had an ally, someone who had grown up with country music and understood it. Because country music is simple from a technical standpoint, but you have to have a certain feel to play it right, and you can only get that feel if you’ve grown up with it. I’ve seen so many rock musicians try to play country, and they always screw it up. Gram didn’t, because he understood the music.”

Sweethearts Of The Rodeo was an immensely influential album, lending courage to hundreds of rock and roll musicians to come out of the closet with their love of country music and opening the eyes of millions of fans who’d never given country a chance. But it was also the lowest charting Byrds album up to that point, and the group splintered again, with Hillman and Parsons going off to start the Flying Burrito Brothers.

The Burritos released Gilded Palace Of Sin in 1969, with Hillman switching from bass to guitar and co-writing six songs with Parsons. But as was the case with the group’s subsequent releases, the strong material was undermined by a clumsy rhythm section and slapdash arrangements. Parsons left after the second album, Hillman after the third, and the group never fulfilled its promise. The Eagles would realize the commercial promise, and Emmylou Harris the artistic promise.

Hillman bounced around for a while, from Manassas to McGuinn-Clark-Hillman to Souther-Hillman-Furay to the Desert Rose Band. The latter group’s first three albums yielded eight top-10 country singles, including two #1’s, but by 1991 the original line-up had broken up.

But Pedersen has proven to be Hillman’s most consistent partner of the post-Burritos era. Pedersen sang Crosby’s tenor part on Hillman’s debut solo album, 1976’s Slippin’ Away, and co-founded the Desert Rose Band. Pedersen has appeared on six Hillman solo albums; three duo albums with Hillman; three quartet albums with Hillman, Tony Rice and Larry Rice; and five Desert Rose Band albums.

“Making this new album,” Hillman says, “I realized why Herb is in such demand as a session singer. He’s a chameleon; he takes on the personality of whoever he’s singing with.

Pedersen appears on all 12 tracks of Bidin’ My Time, and is listed as executive producer. Petty was the producer, and the album turned out to be his last studio project. Petty and the Heartbreakers launched their 40th anniversary tour on April 20 and stayed out on the road till September 25. Seven days later Petty was found unconscious at home, the victim of a heart attack. He died October 2.

“I was in Nashville the day I learned of Tom’s passing,” Hillman says. “The day started out with the Las Vegas massacre and went downhill from there. I was stunned hearing the news outlets confirming his death. I had four shows remaining on my tour, which I immediately wanted to cancel. Roger McGuinn called me and with the words I needed to hear explained that Tom wouldn’t have wanted me to quit. He’d have wanted me to go out and celebrate through the music, to heal the pain we were all feeling.

“It was a very hard week, but we managed to soldier on with our remaining shows. Tom believed in me and went to the mat for me on this album. We became close friends over those few months in the studio. Tom was the light I needed at this point in my life.”

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